2012 Distinguished achievement award: James Thompson

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

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thompson-james-100pxWJames H. Thompson
Executive Vice President of Engineering
Qualcomm, Inc.
San Diego, California

Long before apps and email became the main reasons to keep a mobile phone in your pocket, James Thompson arrived at a then-small California startup called Qualcomm to begin work on implementing what would become one of the most common protocols for cellular phone calls in the world.

Shortly after he graduated in 1991 with a PhD—his third UW-Madison degree in electrical and computer engineering—Thompson set to work on a prototype base station that employed code division multiple access (CDMA), a digital wireless communication standard initially viewed as a fringe technology that allowed for vast improvements in network capacity over competing standards. The explosive popularity of cellular phones in the ensuing two decades helped the company grow into the dominant technology supplier in the mobile industry and the largest fabless semiconductor supplier in the world.

As senior vice president of engineering for the Qualcomm CDMA Technologies Division, he was responsible for the development of Qualcomm’s industry-leading Mobile Data Modem and the Snapdragon Processor product lines. Thompson has recently been promoted to executive vice president of engineering for Qualcomm.

Thompson credits the independent thinking skills he developed during his time as a graduate student as pivotal for a career in the fast-moving technology sector. “The only way to avoid becoming obsolete in the technology world is to keep learning and relearning,” says Thompson. “The broad education I received at Wisconsin is instrumental in allowing me to keep up with the changes and branch into areas outside my expertise.”

Thompson prizes that spirit of innovative thinking and hopes to convey it to future engineers. In addition to serving on the College of Engineering Industrial Advisory Board, Thompson has been instrumental in fostering innovation among current students through the Qualcomm Wireless Innovation Prize, a competition now in its third year that encourages students to turn innovative technology concepts into solid business proposals. He hopes the competition helps students understand the power of collaboration when it comes to creating something new. “Most things that are worth doing are pretty complicated, and require more than one person to do,” he says. “Innovation often involves working with people of different backgrounds. The best ideas are usually found at the boundaries between disciplines.”

Thompson spends his free time learning about history and philosophy, and enjoys mountain biking, skiing and hiking with his wife, Virginia, and children Chelsea, Daniel and Allison.